Consumer fraud is an investigative documentary series that shows how horrific the impacts that result from negligence and cheating in the production and promotion of popular consumer goods could be. One episode of the Netflix series is Recycling Fraud, which shows how plastic recycling is handled around the globe and what happened after China stopped being the recycling bin of the world in 2017.
Plastics, plastics, plastics ... all around us¨
In the Netflix's Recycling Fraud documentary, we visited Malaysia, where detailed shots show us the amount of waste (plastics) that has been imported to Malaysia from other countries. The documentary points out that plastic waste is everywhere - on the streets, in the seas, in rivers and, unfortunately, due to the large contamination of plastics, also in the food chain. There will soon be more microplastics than fish in the seas, and the global threat keeps growing.
The solutions, which were supposed to fix the problem, turned out to be an empty promise. Unfortunately, we cannot deal with plastic pollution. The plastics industry badly cheated on us.
Plastics are important to us because, we eat and drink from them, we dress them, buy with them, and life-saving medical instruments are also made of plastic. Plastics are a miracle of our modern life and comfort. They are durable, flexible and cheap. They can be manufactured cheaply and can also be shaped into thousands of different sizes and forms. Plastic packaging has several benefits in terms of food and cosmetics protection and has therefore spread throughout the world. But in fact, you will never get rid of plastics. Plastics are durable but also terrible because it takes them several hundred years to completely decompose. There are also concerns about the impact of plastics on our health, the way they are made and the way we are using them.
Substances contained in plastics are often toxic and this causes a range of health problems. And believe it or not, every year more and more plastics are produced. In recent decades, there has been a massive increase in plastic production worldwide. Every year, more than 380 million tons of plastic are produced around the globe. If this continues, the whole world will be full of plastics. Why has something, which has become an inseparable part of our lives, turned into an enormous world problem? To answer this question, we need to look at the roots of our relationship to plastics.
For years we have been taught that dealing with plastics is simple, we just need to recycle them. But plastic bags are not recycled, plastic bags are the curse of waste sorting plants because they clog machines. In waste sorting facilities, waste is sorted into parcels, which are then sold to producers who melt them, and turn them into something that can be sold. Plastics recycling is an industry with a turnover of $ 37.5 billion for 2018.
Thousands of different types of plastics make recycling complicated
There are thousands of different types of plastics, which are difficult to be recycled. Each of them has a different chemical structure and can only be recycled if it isn't mixed with other types. In fact, most plastics cannot be recycled at all. Out of all plastics produced up to now, only 9% have been successfully recycled. The rest of them have been buried, burned, or dumped in landfill sites. In most countries we can see rubbish heaps next to the stream sources. Water washes the rubbish away, so it ends up in rivers and oceans. It is as if you poured out a truck full of f plastic waste every minute into the ocean.
The history of plastics
Even though plastics are older, the petrochemical industry started its development after the Second World War. Plastics were cheap and they were used for everything. A major change took place when big international companies started to produce beverage packaging and plastic bottles were distributed internationally. This is how disposable plastics came into existence. It didn't take long for bottles, packaging and shopping bags to begin to lie on the roads, polluting our rivers and beaches.
The plastic manufactures realized that if they succeed in convincing people to recycle bottles, they can sell even more of them. The recycling system uses 7 systems according to different categories. Only systems 1,2, and 5 can be recycled. There is almost no interest in the other categories.
China as a recycling bin of the world
Developed countries came up with the idea that it is cheaper and easier to sell plastics in one country, China. China has become the biggest place for recycling of plastic waste. China had everything that the industry for recycling of plastics needed. Infrastructure, cheap workforce and developed ship transportation, which could cheaply collect, and import plastic waste from around the world. The recycled plastics were cheaper than new ones. 22.4. - The rest of the world was thrilled that it could get rid of its waste, and even make profit out of it. China said: "We are going to buy all plastic waste from you, and we will deal with it." As a result, thousands of factories were built in China for processing of recycled materials. China had been extending its infrastructure of recycling plastics for 20 years, while unfortunately our system of recycling had begun to lag. China collected almost 3⁄4 (72,4%) of waste in 2017. Redundant waste that couldn't be recycled, was burned and caused massive pollution in the country. Thanks to the Olympic Games in Beijing, the authorities took measures before their start, which were supposed to reduce air pollution. The Olympics highlighted their environmental issues. China banned the import of plastic waste on 18th July 2017. They stopped serving as a recycling bin for the whole world. The impact of the Chinese ban was felt immediately in America, Europa and around the world. Now many countries are trying to sell their waste to India and other countries. The whole import of Chinese waste was reduced by 99%.
When not China, then Malaysia
After a big stop from China, the business for recycling has moved to Malaysia. People are overloaded with waste all over Malaysia, which has been imported to their country instead of China. Dozens of illegal factories of plastic recycling waste have arisen, where redundant plastics are burnt. One of the deterrent cases is air pollution in Jenjarom town. Due to the establishment of 40 illegal factories of plastic recycling, there has been a fourfold increase in cancer in this area. The residents of Jenjarom have made a huge campaign for clean air. Thanks to this issue the Malaysian government became interested in illegal factories and started closing them. Unfortunately, the Malaysian government does not want to put a stop to all imported plastics, but it opens its door for companies with license to import plastic waste. The Malaysian government has promised a full ban of disposable plastics until 2030 and it will ban the import of all non-recyclable plastics.
The growth of plastic waste import into Malaysia
A fight with windmills in Texas
When one Texas small city had decided to clean up its living environment, it caused a battle with several opponents. The river Rio Grande that runs through their town, supplies 6 million people along the borders. It is only one source of drinking water and it is one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the world. The first reason of threat is insufficient water supply and the second reason is pollution. Inhabitants of Laredo began to notice that their city was covered by a huge number of plastic bags. They were everywhere. Did you know that every year we consume 5 trillion of plastic bags and produce bags, which means 16 000 pieces of plastic bags each minute and 39 billion of American dollars for suppliers (a huge amount, don't you think?).Only in the town of Laredo a 120 million of disposable bags and produce bags are consumed. That is why the inhabitants made a deal that the city would issue a decree of banning the sale of plastic bags and produce bags. The meeting was organized, which was also attended by local traders who opposed the ban. They argued that it would cause local retailers' economic problems. As the debate sharpened, another party entered the game, a representative of plastic manufactures from Washington. The City Council in Laredo approved the public notice. There were 6 votes out of 7 against it. Thanks to this ban the whole city was cleaned up from plastic waste that polluted it. Unfortunately, the opponents didn't give up and started to fight. The tradesmen filed a lawsuit against the city in which they accused it of breaking the Texas's law of waste which prohibited the cities regulate containers. They claimed that plastic bags were containers. The case ended up in the Supreme Court in Austin. The Court ruled that the city broke the law due to the ban of plastic bags.
So-called "toxic tours" are held in Houston
In Houston, a few hours 'drive from Laredo, is located the second biggest complex of petrochemical industry in the world. A bigger one can only be found in Saudi Arabia. We can see how the petrochemical industry impacts human health. So-called toxic tours are held there that show tourists how big the impact of the petrochemical industry is on the community. The bad smell that can be felt there clearly comes from the production of plastics. Living close to the petrochemical industry has a big impact on health -there has been an increased number of cancer cases and increased levels of ADHD. The petrochemical industry produces 10 tons of plastics each second. As plastic production grew along the river channel close to the factory, people began to find plastic waste on the seashore. There are plastic pellets on the coast close to the factory that look like animal food or seeds, and these have served as food for fish and turtle. And people eat fish.
Microplastics - a disaster for humanity
Ocean plastic pollution is well-known. Experts believe that 8-9 million tons of plastics end up in the oceans annually.
What is little known about are microplastics that can be found everywhere, in the water system, in the air and even on the seafloor. Even though research of microplastics in our food is at the beginning, evidence confirms that microplastics affect human health. There are a number of studies which confirm this, such as type 2 diabetes and infertility. It is expected that in the next 10 years the production of plastics will skyrocket. The petrochemical industry is planning to increase plastic production by 150 billion dollars only in the USA. It is assumed that the volume of plastic production will triple by 2050!
What to do with the heap of plastic waste?
The question arises: What can we do with plastic production? The answer is, we can't recycle our lifestyle. Recycling is only part of the solution, but we must start with reducing the amount of plastic.
There is a tendency among people to stop using plastics - so-called life without waste. However, not everybody is able to exclude plastics from their lives. But the change in behavior is a good start. Individual behavior is really important. What we do through small actions is adding up and has a big impact. But we can't do it by ourselves, individually, we need regulations. Governments are beginning to realize that they can do something about it - Tunisia prohibited plastic bags from the 1 st of January 2020, New Zealand banned the sale of single-use plastic bags in 2019,plastic bags were also forbidden in Kenya, the government of Delhi supports the ban on plastic bag production. The European parliament prohibited using single-use plastics. The governments realize that something can be done for our planet and our health.
Unfortunately, only bans and better behavior of consumers, who reduce the use of plastics, are not enough. We need safe plastics and chemicals without endocrine disruptors and plastic materials that do not contain BPA (bisphenol A).
If the petrochemical companies do not reduce plastic production, or they do not invest more money in their removal, this crisis will not pass immediately. These companies have more money than the government, hence we must find a way to force them to invest more in the solution of this issue. We need representatives at all levels to fight against the tide of plastics, to be educated, to know what's going on and understand that this is a global crisis.
Source: Netflix, Recycling fraud